Politics: When enough is enough
North Dakota Republicans own the executive branch, the legislator branch and the judicial branch of state government, lock, stock and barrel. The Democrats could meet in a phone booth except there aren’t any.
But having absolute power at the state level is not enough politics for some Republicans who now want to open up county, city, township, school board and other local offices to partisan elections by starting with an innocent marking on the ballot of party preference.
A strong 2-party system is necessary for a democracy to function. There are policy issues streaming from voter ideologies that must be resolved. Local governments make secondary decisions, most of which are tightly controlled by state legislation. In reality, local governments are administrative units of the state government.
One advocate of partisan elections pointed to all the money local governments spend. He apparently wants to apply a more conservative financial system to local government. Apparently, he hasn’t been around enough to know that local finances involve mostly “sunk” costs or state regulations that permit local governments limited financial flexibility.
Other than creating political opportunities for the two parties, what are the benefits of a partisan system at the local level? A more conservative spending ideology? Most local governments are kept on the ragged edge of poverty already by the local electorate, responsible officials and state laws.
Local governments in North Dakota are pretty clean. Our governments are small; almost everyone in the county knows what is going on in the Courthouse, including the unofficial as well as the official. About the only transgressions committed in local government are long coffee breaks.
For sure, partisan elections will not make local governments more effective, more efficient or any more honest.
In fact, they will do just the opposite.
Offices will be stepping stones
Local offices will be flooded with junior politicians who will see public office not as an opportunity to serve the public so much as a stepping stone to some higher partisan office. Use it as a kindergarten for the electoral college.
New levels of conflict
Partisan ballots will generate new levels of conflict in local governments as parties fight for offices or as party loyalists fight each other to gain a rung in the political ladder. Everyone will spend more time campaigning and less time serving the public.
With politically-minded partisans running local government, how often will political considerations be uppermost when choices have to be made and priorities established? Will politics decide on highways? On arrests? On human services?
Defeat nonpartisan career officials
Partisan ballots will eliminate at least half of the county officials. Even if they are Republicans, the partisan atmosphere day-in and day-out does not fit their idea of public service. In some local governments, ambitious partisans will run against incumbents regardless of party.
Parties screen candidates
To serve in local governments, candidates will have to run the political gamut when the local party organization insists on screening future officeholders. Formal and informal machines will develop.
Forced to raise money
Many local officials do not have competition because the public is satisfied with their service. Partisan elections will create competition where competition isn’t necessary and it will force any officeholders to raise new money for races they never had in nonpartisan offices. There will be new personal costs to serving the people. That will discourage present officeholders.
With the rancor permeating both parties at present, this is hardly the time to bring that sort of partisan disease into local governments that have been performing so well. When it comes to partisan politics, at some point we must say that enough is enough. Enough.
Lloyd Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota and former political science professor at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.